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Confucius, Holy Clowns, And Suicide Bombers -- An Essay to My History of China Students

Confucius, Holy Clowns, And Suicide Bombers -- An Essay to My History of China Students

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Published by Clay Burell
Not a perfect essay by any means -- at times, it strays into personal letter and lecture notes -- but one student told me he shared it with a friend, who said it was "the most interesting thing he'd ever read by a teacher."

So maybe it's worth sharing. Or else the kid's a knucklehead who hasn't read many teachers.
Not a perfect essay by any means -- at times, it strays into personal letter and lecture notes -- but one student told me he shared it with a friend, who said it was "the most interesting thing he'd ever read by a teacher."

So maybe it's worth sharing. Or else the kid's a knucklehead who hasn't read many teachers.

More info:

Published by: Clay Burell on Aug 30, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/30/2010

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Reading Guide: Ebrey Chapter 2: Philosophical Foundations of China: The WarringStates PeriodRead
: pp. 42-55 (Skip “States and Ethnic Identities”), plus Conclusion pp. 58-59.
I was going to have you write answers to some of the questions following my essay, but instead will shorten it to this: 
Submit on Edmodo: 3 things from the Ebrey reading you found most interesting,confusing, appealing, or appalling -- and please be able to make it interesting (not pretend interesting) if asked about it in our class discussion on Tuesday.
I
ʼ
m feeling playful, so I
ʼ
ll do the homework you did last week and write you a reflectiveessay about the stuff in Chapter 2, adding my own insights and connections as I go inhopes it won
ʼ
t make you feel like you
ʼ
re reading a phone book or encyclopedia.**
Oops. Mine is 1,500 words. Took about an hour.
History of ChinaClay BurellMr. Burell
ʼ
s Class27 August 2010
Of Confucius, Holy Clowns, and Airport Suicide Bombers
Why should anybody today care about knowing ancient Chinese religion? A few sentencescan make the case:First, anyone who is East Asian -- Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai,Vietnamese -- should care because their family life and personality are very likely moldedby the ideas that arise in the Warring States Period.Even people who are
not 
East Asian have good reason to learn it: it
ʼ
s no secret that the21st Century is shaping up to be the Century of China (and, yes, India), so odds are thatanybody with a future will cross paths with East Asia either socially, romantically, orprofessionally. So they should know what a different world they
ʼ
re entering when they do,and thus be able to navigate that world with better success, be it at the business dinner orthe girl-friend
ʼ
s parent
ʼ
s dinner.A third reason, of course, is that it
ʼ
s simply good mental traveling to learn about all this.Point blank: when we talk about East Asia, we
ʼ
re talking about Confucius, the man mostreligious studies scholars agree is by far the most influential “religious” figure and moralphilosopher of all time -- more than Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed. One in fourpeople on the planet today is Chinese; from the beginning of history to today, China
ʼ
spopulation has always been larger than that of Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and theAmericas. And China
ʼ
s people -- plus, later, those of Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam,and Singapore -- have lived the core Confucian values since 200 years before Jesus untiltoday. (And they live them seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath.)
 
Even Christianized Asians live Confucian lives as their daily norm: family values, respectfor elders and authorities, humility and a distaste for vulgarity and boasting, a gentledistaste for conflict, the importance of “face” and, glaringly obvious at SAS, of
education 
--all of those things go back to Confucius.So understanding Confucius is understanding most of East Asia today -- from family life tosocial attitudes to manners and etiquette and sexual norms. (And to understandConfucius, the
Shujing 
will take you a long way.)Second, Confucius is not a teacher about religion and life after death; on the contrary, hisfocus is
the good life on earth 
, and how to live it wisely, happily, and graciously. Whenasked about who made the universe, where we go after we die, and the other TenThousand Unknowable Things, Confucius said:
""
To know when you know something, and to know when you
don 
ʼ   
know
"
something: that is wisdom.He knew humans don
ʼ
t
know 
about the Unknowable, so he advised it best to pay attentionto ritual and ceremony, yes, but to keep a clean distance from questions that can
ʼ
t beanswered -- and from people who claim they
know 
the answers. He thought those peopledangerous to social order, and their superstitious claims dangerous to individualintelligence.The
Analects 
, the major collection of Confucius
ʼ
alleged sayings as recorded by hisstudents, is a refreshingly easy book to read. Nothing in it is hard to believe except that itscommon sense and rationalism, which arrived in the West only during the Renaissance,Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment a short 500 years ago, rose in China a very
long 
 
two thousand, five hundred 
years ago.And while Confucius does have a sense of humor in places, it
ʼ
s one that at most makesyou smile a little as you read. Like practically every other religion or philosophy, laughterand a sense of humor seem somehow against the rules. Confucius is serious this way too.But his “opponents,” the Daoists? They give us laughs by the belly-full, while all the whilediscussing the same subjects the more sober religions talk about. Reading the great
Zhuangzi
, Daoism
ʼ
s second great sage, is like reading Jesus doing stand-up comedy. Youcan
ʼ
t help but love the guy. He
ʼ
s a hoot, and he
ʼ
s also as deep as they come (in my book,anybody who insists there
ʼ
s nothing unholy about laughter, that it
ʼ
s every bit as sacred asall the more depressing emotions we usually find glooming up houses of worship, is wiseby definition. Why
shouldn 
ʼ   
laughter and play count among the holy things? What
ʼ
s moreheavenly than that?).Zhuangzi had no patience for the Confucians. He was an individualist and an escapist,believing the wisest reaction to suffering is not to try to “fix the problem,” but instead to
flow with it 
, “like water -- seeking the path of least resistance.” You can
ʼ
t fix human society anymore than you can fix an earthquake or a drought. You fix your own mind
ʼ
s way of reactingto things, stop freaking out when life is hard, slow down and enjoy it, and don
ʼ
t get caughtup chasing gold and honors. It
ʼ
s all a fool
ʼ
s errand to him. He prefers to go fishing and tellgood, deep, playful stories. Your favorite weird uncle. (And one of my five favorite humanbeings in history.)
Connections to Greece that might help, if you remember the basics about Greecefrom other classes:
 
Greek and Chinese philosophy share a sort of “philosophical relay race” pattern: Socratestaught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. In China, Confucianism has a similar threesome:Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.Socrates, like Confucius, never wrote his philosophy down. We know Socrates through thewritings of Plato, yet Plato took Socrates
ʼ
ideas into areas Socrates may not have agreedwith. Similarly, Mencius studied under Confucius
ʼ
grandson, so there
ʼ
s a Socrates-Plato/ Confucius-Mencius pattern there.Aristotle studied under Plato, but ended up arguing against his master. Xunzi similarlyargues against Mencius concerning, above all, human nature. As Ebrey explains, Menciusthought human nature was essentially good, but a bad environment can corrupt it (thus theimportance of a model king). Xunzi says this is naive, that human nature is prone tostupidity and vice,
and thus needs education 
. (Not the kind of education in today
ʼ
s world,which more and more seems to teach that education is simply a means for getting a joband making a lot of money, which is what success
means 
. Confucians taught that thepleasures of an educated life are themselves the wealth, and the success. The gold is inthe mind, not the bank.)Xunzi is also interesting as the first flat-out
atheist 
in Chinese philosophy. Confucius wasnot, mind you, an atheist. He said “We can
ʼ
t know about God, Gods, and before and afterlife.” That
ʼ
s an
agnostic 
position: “a-” means “not,” and “gnostic” means “knowledge” -- soConfucius is agnostic. Xunzi is different. He says, flat out,
no gods are out there,
as plainas an atheist can put it. But he continues with a totally interesting argument: “Even thoughall of this religious belief is superstitious nonsense,
we should continue and support it.
Why? Because first, rituals are beautiful. They add pleasing colors to our days. Andsecond, they
ʼ
re
useful 
. People need an outlet for fears of death and frustrations with life,so let them pray away, even though it
ʼ
s totally pointless. You AP Lit people might think ofAristotle
ʼ
s argument that Greek Tragedy was healthy because it was “cathartic” -- it letpeople drain out all of their fear and horror at the dark sides of life. Xunzi seems to thinkreligion is a similarly useful form of “mental hygiene.”And then there
ʼ
s
Laozi
, Daoism
ʼ
s “Old Master.” Laozi wrote the
Dao de Jing 
(“The Classicof the Way”), and it
ʼ
s so deep, mysterious, and paradoxical that I pretty much refuse toeven try to teach it to high schoolers. Deer in headlights gazes is all I
ʼ
ve seen each timeI
ʼ
ve had students read it. So taste it if you
ʼ
re curious, but we won
ʼ
t focus on it in classmuch, if at all. We
ʼ
ll focus on Zhuangzi instead.There
ʼ
s one final “So what?”, and I
ʼ
ll close with it: it
ʼ
s tantalizing to wonder what Jesus andMohammed would have thought about Confucius. I picture them totally approving of hismorality: he argues, like they do, that greed and the fever for gold are vulgar and the “rootof all evil.” He also argues that we should love our neighbors and treat everyone well.Confucius, too, would approve of the moral teachings of Jesus and Mohammed -- at leasttheir social ones. But Confucius probably would have drawn the line at believing theirclaims to “know” about beginnings and endings, heavens and hells, spirits and demons.One can only imagine how interesting their conversations would be if they had the chanceto debate these things. And while that
ʼ
s impossible, of course, somehow it still points tosomething I notice every time I pass through airports in the Middle East, the West, and inChina: pretty much everywhere but China, soldiers patrol airports looking for suicidebombers -- and they obviously do it for good reason. Muslims, Jews, and Christians have

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